Last Updated September 5, 2023.
As the subtitle of A World Made New indicates, Mary Ann Glendon’s book focuses on the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in overseeing the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As a pioneering US delegate whom President Truman appointed to the United Nations, Roosevelt was first a member and then the “Chairman” of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Although many prominent politicians had reservations or outright opposed her for reasons including lack of foreign policy expertise and vocal opposition to racism, Truman was convinced she was an ideal representative.
As the Human Rights Commission began planning its activities, the Cold War was becoming more firmly established, as shown in Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in March 1946. Roosevelt was deeply committed to the importance of the committee’s work, as she wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. The Commission’s members generally
“thought that lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among the nations, and that the recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.”
Although Soviet reservations about the dominant role of the United States in the initial organization of the United Nations is well known, Glendon points out that British resistance to both US and Soviet dominance was also embedded in reservations about the focus on human rights. Their reluctance included suspicion that the Americans wanted to make inroads into the economic affairs of British colonies by promoting their independence. While Winston Churchill was still prime minister,
Churchill and the Foreign Office, determined to resist any erosion of British imperial power, were not about to become champions of human rights. The issue of the future of colonial dependencies was a major source of friction between Britain and the United States.
One significant issue that Glendon considers is whether “universality” is truly an applicable concept. She notes that questions of cultural integrity and national sovereignty frequently arise and that universality continues to be challenged as “relevant” to every situation. Glendon goes back to the debates on this topic when the Declaration was being prepared. The evidence she presents in favor of universality tend to be negative assessments of motivations for challenges to it. For example, referring to “authoritarian governments” that wish to counter “the pressure for freedom building among their own citizens,” she cites Iran’s charge that the UDHR promotes Judeo-Christian values over Muslim values. Although she largely dismisses the criticisms of biases during preparation of the document, she notes the prevalence of the “Anglo-American” idea of rights, which draws on Hobbes, Locke, and John Stuart Mill:
It implicitly confers its highest priority on individual freedom and typically formulates rights without explicit mention of their limits or their relation to other rights or to responsibilities.